Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Error “The toughest part to learn was blocking the ball. I got blown up a lot. I didn’t break any fingers, but when you hurt your thumb, you learn how to catch the ball properly real quick.”Through his youth career and at Riverside Poly, Barnes was a shortstop and a second baseman. No mitt, no mask, no shin guards, no 93 mph hand grenades stirring the dirt at his feet, not once.Catching is what you do when you don’t think baseball is hard enough. But Barnes was looking at something more than survival.“The impressive thing happened the next season,” said Tim Esmay, who was Arizona State’s assistant coach when the conversion happened, then took over the head spot.“I got with him and said, look, you can go back to the infield now. We’re OK. He said no. He said this was a new challenge and he wanted to answer it.” LOS ANGELES >> Austin Barnes, bench-bound as a freshman, heard the clock ticking.As a sophomore he wanted to make Arizona State’s travel squad so desperately that he would have tuned up the bus..Instead he did something more dangerous and frustrating and potentially as degrading. He became a catcher.“Both catchers got hurt and the coaches came to me,” Barnes said. “I figured it was the quickest way to get ahead. It was also going to be a clearer path to the big leagues. Barnes became an All Pac 12 catcher. He also became the ninth-round choice of the Marlins. “As a 5-foot-10 infielder, I don’t know if that would have happened,” Barnes said.Now he is one more gadget for the Dodgers.He catches, he occasionally plays second base, and on Friday night he whacked a grand slam and a 3-run homer in the same game at San Diego. Now he has 18 RBI in 119 plate appearances.“Which was funny,” Esmay said, “because we always told him, ‘Barnesie, you can’t hit home runs. You’re too short.’ He’s always showing you.”Barnes has put a sheen on one of the first trades Andrew Friedman & Co. made in L.A. At the 2014 winter meetings, the Dodgers dealt Dee Gordon and Dan Haren to Florida for Barnes, Enrique Hernandez, reliever Chris Hatcher and starter Andrew Heaney, whom they shipped to the Angels for Howie Kendrick.Hernandez is again ripping extra-base hits against left-handers powerfully (474 slugging percentage) and Kendrick was a clubhouse stabilizer and willing left-fielder when Chase Utley arrived at second base.Barnes’ promise took the sting of the trade that sent A.J. Ellis to Philadelphia.And as Barnes kept catching, he learned the flip side of the 60-foot game. “I’m not sure I really understood what pitchers were doing, before that,” he said.“The main thing we told him at first that you have to leave your bat in the dugout,” Esmay said. “There’s too much other stuff to lock in. He did it so well that he was able to maintain his hitting, too. That’s why he was all-conference, in only two years.”He played with the Angels’ Kole Calhoun and the Indians’ Jason Kipnis at ASU, and he played against UCLA’s Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, Stanford’s Stephen Piscotty, Washington’s Jake Lamb, Oregon’s Tyler Anderson and Oregon State’s Sam Gaviglio in the Pac-12.“The other thing he had to learn is that it’s OK if the ball hits you,” Esmay said. “Infielders don’t think like that. Otherwise, a lot of skills translate well. He handles that exchange between glove and hand because he’s always done it, and his footwork really comes into play.”In three different minor league seasons, Barnes’ caught-stealing percentage was 38 or higher. He is at 30 percent lifetime.A lot of avuncular eyes are watching, including those of Mike Gallego. The shortstop on Oakland’s Bash Brothers teams is the director of player development for the Angels. Barnes is his nephew.“Austin and my son would play all kinds of games in their backyard,” Gallego said, “and it would get pretty loud back there. From the beginning you saw an edge with him. There was a lot of competition to play in that (Riverside) area and there were other pitfalls, too. Fortunately he never made that left turn that some guys did.“But I think it came from Stephanie, his mom and my sister. In our family there were five boys and two girls. She was always wanted to get in our basketball games, get involved in whatever we were doing. She got tough that way. Austin got those genes.”He did, and he also found a job that allowed him to flash signals. The Dodgers eventually stole them, and him.